When Moms Grieve: The Dark Side of Adoption

In I Kings 3:16 we find a story of King Solomon that is often used to demonstrate his wisdom.

Two babies were put to bed one night; the next morning, one of them was dead. The mothers – women of questionable repute – each claimed the living infant was hers. Solomon instructed that the baby be cut in two, and half given to each woman. One woman agreed – and the other immediately begged the king to give the live infant to her opponent. Solomon then handed the child to the woman who was willing to surrender her child rather than see him come to harm.

Many people suppose – as King Solomon must have – that the woman who protested was the natural mother of the infant. In adoption circles, birth mothers are told this story to facilitate relinquishment – that if they really love their child, they will follow through on their adoption plan no matter what, rather than see the child come to harm. You can read one such story here:

The thing is, one need not be biologically connected to a child to love him or her, to want to do everything possible to protect him or her. Nor does the physical fact of carrying a child automatically hardwire a woman with motherly sensibilities – if that were true, abortion would not be the scourge on our society that it now is. If it were true, women would not abuse or neglect their children, thereby rendering CPS obsolete.

Reading the Solomon story with the eyes of an adoptive parent, it seems just as plausible that the bereaved mother would have been more likely – not less – to see to the second child’s safety. Not because she had carried the child in her body, but because she had witnessed the natural mother’s indifference and the child’s need from the beginning, and so had begun to carry that child in her heart.

Post-Adoptive Depression Syndrome: The Silent Story

One of the first questions many people ask an adoptive parent is, “Is it possible to love an adopted child as much as a ‘regular’ child?”

Most adoptive parents will immediately respond, “Of course.” Of course we love our children – just as all parents do. Sometimes that love comes easily – when the child is freshly washed and tucked away in bed, counting sugarplums. In those moments, parenting is one of life’s sweetest pleasures.

But sometimes – more often than we’d like to admit – that love is not a feeling, but a holding-on-by-the-fingernails choice. How could it be easy to love a chaos-creating, snot-spewing bundle of snarling rage? How could you not resent the fact that your efforts are unappreciated and resisted at every turn? How could you not feel as though you are being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the claustrophobic vortex of insurmountable neediness by a three-year-old insomniac and his openly defiant five-year-old sister?

Yes, you love them. But you don’t always like them very much.

These feelings of ambivalence are very common, particularly in adoptive mothers. One study indicates that PADS (Post-Adoption Depression Syndrome) afflicts as many as 65% of all adoptive mothers. For more information on this syndrome, go here or here.

This is the “dark side” most adoptive parents (myself included) find very hard to admit. Who would understand? After all, we CHOSE adoption! The needs of our child must supercede our own … isn’t that the very nature of parenting?

Well, yes, of course we know these things are true. If we didn’t, we couldn’t have gotten this far. We choose the gift … again and again and again we choose, just as every parent does. But unlike every other parent, we must struggle with some unique realities that natural parents need never consider.

We don’t get to experience that child move within us before we have to deal with the super-sized toddler tantrums. We don’t experience the same kind of delivery (natural or any other kind), confirming that the child is truly a part of us. We don’t often get the solicitous interventions and supports of friends and family in those first few days and weeks after a child’s birth (though we get to experience the erratic sleep patterns of infancy, often for years). We don’t get to look into the child’s eyes … and see her Daddy looking back at us.

Each time we find ourselves unable to live up to the “perfect parent” image we promised the agency, part of us dies a little – and worries about the consequences of our failings down the road. Yes, all parents feel inadequate from time to time – but most of them don’t feel an invisible third party in the wings, keeping score.

Four Important Lessons on Adoption

Why am I telling you all this? Am I trying to dissuade you from becoming an adoptive parent? Not at all. There are many, many happy moments in adoptive parenting, and life lessons that you would not be able to learn any other way. God created the human soul to give itself in love, a well that swells and spills over many times, contrasting those dark moments with times of indescribable contentment. Even joy.

But if those dark moments come, it’s better to acknowledge the reality than stuff it inside. There will be times you must put your own needs first, to have the resources you need to tend to your child. You may need to consider arranging for a few hours – or perhaps even more than a few hours – of childcare simply to get the perspective you need to continue on the road you have chosen.

For us, it meant using the subsidy money the State gave us for daycare, so I could keep working and writing. Not because it was immensely profitable (it wasn’t), but because it kept me sane, so I could tend to the children’s needs the rest of the time. I was sometimes criticized for this choice – the harshest critics were people who knew us only casually. And there are times when I have to admit that I still could have been more patient, more giving, more available.

But if I had it to do over again, would I? The answer is, “I don’t know.” What I do know is that somehow we made it through three harrowing years of foster care, until the adoption came through. It took daycare and depression meds, but we made it.

In the process, I learned four important lessons about adoption the hard way:

1. The greatest challenge of adoption is balancing the needs of the whole family.

2. The fact that those on the perimeter don’t understand or approve of your choices, doesn’t necessarily make them bad choices.

3. Mid-course correction is often a better choice than indecision.

4. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent. Trust God to make up the difference between what the children need, and what you are able to give.

So What Do You Do?

When you begin to recognize the signs — the mood swings, overeating, sleeplessness (or inability to get up), the inability to enjoy the little things you used to love — what should you do?

First, get help. That includes both household support — let your friends and family know that you could use some help in the form of dinners, household chores, babysitting (so you can take a nap), etc — as well as professional. Join an adoptive parent support group. Talk with your pastor about the stresses you are feeling. The feelings may not last, but you need to find an outlet for them while you’re experiencing the drain.

If the feelings don’t go away, make an appointment with your doctor for a physical. If you’re in full-blown depression, a course of anti-depressants might mean the difference between a calm and happy home … or a chaotic, angry one.

Be sure you are eating and exercising regularly. This was one area I really struggled to maintain. There were times when I didn’t sit down for a regular meal for days at a time … just a handful of Goldfish crackers here and a yoghurt there. This is not the time to diet, just to eat well.

Do whatever is necessary to get your rest. That might mean allowing your foster/adoptive child to sleep in a sleeping bag beside your bed (most agencies would frown on letting an older child sleep in your room, but then most social workers don’t have to get UP with said child nineteen times a night). I’m not a strong advocate of “family bedding,” but the early stages of your bonding time might go more smoothly if you don’t have to tred the stairs every hour on the hour.

Don’t abdicate your own judgment, and don’t let people project their parenting issues on you. God has placed this child in your hands. Trust your insticts; you and your husband are a team — and God will give you all the graces you need if you ask Him to.

Go to Mass and Adoration as often as you can. Even if the kids are a little rambunctious, do what you need to to get the spiritual reinforcement you need. Yes, even if that means Cheerios and stuffed toys for a while. I know many families have strong opinions about this issue — but again, they are not the ones God is asking to raise this particular child. I promise that in a few months or, at worst, a few years this will no longer be necessary. But for now, be gentle with yourself … and with your children.

Repeat to yourself often: “These are kids with unique needs and abilities, and God has given them parents with equally unique needs and abilities. We will take each day as it comes, and trust God to show us the rest.”

Now, go and do something that gives you pleasure. Play the piano. Read a novel for fifteen minutes or so. Make a batch of your favorite cookies. Imagine that this was your best friend going through the situation … What would you do and say to her to help her through it? Give yourself permission to seek out that kind of support from the people who love you.

Remember: You are loved, and you are not alone.

P.S. Today I came across this post from a young woman who says she is “proud” she chose abortion. (She doesn’t sound proud so much as defiant and angry.) So if you are a struggling adoptive parent, please offer up a prayer today for Kaya and those like her, whose struggle is only beginning.

Copyright 2007 Heidi Hess Saxton

11 thoughts on “When Moms Grieve: The Dark Side of Adoption

  1. We’re hoping to adopt too, and believe me, I am seeing all the dark sides of it on this side, at least. I did go to the website of the woman who wrote about Solomon’s judgement and adoption…very chilling. I’ve been reading a lot of that kind of thing and forwarding it to our social worker. There are a lot of dark and difficult moments in parenting – many things most moms won’t admit. You aren’t alone!


  2. I’m so glad that you posted this! We adopted our boys just over three years ago (from foster care), and I have dealt with these feelings time and time again. And unfortunately those who have never done this, simply can’t understand… all they see are three happy boys.Keep on keepin’ on… I’m right there with you!


  3. Having adopted two children in the past year and a half via intercountry adoption, and from a country that is currently experiencing major upheavals in its adoption program, this topic has been heavy on my heart lately. I have only recently admitted that I have been experiencing these emotions, mostly because I was secretly afraid that the second adoption would not go through if the social worker knew how I really felt, and because my husband has been deployed for 13 of the last 18 months. Thank you for posting this. It will give me more food for thought, and a source of hope for friends who are experiencing similar emotions. May I post a link to this on my blog?


  4. I’d be happy for those who read this and knows of someone who could use the information, feel free to pass it along — with the copyright info, and linked to my blog. Thanks! Heidi


  5. Wow, I’m not an adopted mother. I’m the mother of a 3 month old newborn and I’m shocked, just shocked at how similar the trials and the solutions are for adopted and non-adoptive mothers. Adopted mom seem to just have a sharper curve (I can’t imagine starting to parent my son as a 10 year old, for example, so tough). Anyway, this has really encouraged me to lend an open (and non-judgemental) ear and an open hand to adoptive moms in my community. Thank you.


  6. Thank you, dear Heidi,for this honest and moving article. And with one’s biological child, sometimes a defiant little one can suddenly resemble a relative who was abusive or who caused a heartache–it can work both ways.


  7. The thought of ‘you are loved and you are not alone’ is so true and something I think most of us need to hear regularly. I’m not sure that I agree about King Solomon and the Mothers. But it does give me something to think about, and I’m always open to new thoughts.My little one has been home for about 3 months now. I don’t know that I would feel different if she was born to me, but I do know that the way became a family is ‘natural’. Adoption language is usually a little more sensitive to that word… or maybe I’m sensitive to it.Peace.Melissababyheaton.blogspot.com


  8. This was a great post for the adoption carnival. Thanks so much for entering. I think so often this topic gets looked over… Thanks again for sharing with us all.


  9. Congratulations, your post has been selected to appear in the Carnival of Christian Advice. Thanks for submitting! I’ll have to bookmark this one–we’ve had adoption our hearts a while, too. Whatever experiences others may have had, I just have a desire to provide a loving home for a child that otherwise wouldn’t have one. We’re strongly considering embryo adoption, though I’d love to adopt a child at risk of being aborted, too.


  10. I feel for first/birth moms, who have another kind of grief to process. Just as adoptive parents find that the reality of adoption is sometimes different from the imagined scenario, so is making an adoption plan. When the image of the ideal family that you entrusted your child to turns into something less, a lot of anger can result. The lucky ones take responsibility for the choices that led to the adoption placement, and begin the healing process. Others get caught in the victimization trap. Both the mothers and the children (who have imagined scenarios and disappointments of their own) need a great deal of prayer. Two of my sisters chose to raise the children they had while they were teenagers, and in both cases the children were scarred from the experience. When it comes to adoption, the bad choice is not making the adoption plan — the bad choices come long before that. Thanks for writing!


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